In an uncharacteristic fit of almost-robustness, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan has said she is ‘open-minded’ about scrapping the BBC licence fee and replacing it with a Netflix-style subscription service. Good idea. What would we actually miss if we didn’t subscribe?
Not an awful lot in my view. Some people cite David Attenborough’s nature documentaries but I certainly wouldn’t now that they have become so obtrusively propagandistic. The problem with the BBC isn’t — and never has been — lack of talented filmmakers, wildlife camera crews, presenters, actors, writers or production teams. It’s that, from news to drama, the BBC’s woke politics now subsume and corrupt its entire output.
Still, the occasional oddity does slip through the net. This week’s unlikeliest hit was Mathair a’ Chinn Suidhe, a documentary on BBC Alba about Donald Trump’s Scottish mum, Mary MacLeod. It was presented in Gaelic (with subtitles), which was the language Mary herself spoke as the youngest of ten children, raised in a two-bedroom cottage in the crofting township of Tong on the Isle of Lewis.
If Trump’s name weren’t such toxic box office with liberal America, Mary’s early life would surely by now have been made into a heartwarming movie. It’s a charming and unlikely story of triumph against the odds: who could have imagined that of all the 4.5 million hopefuls who left Scotland in search of a future in the US, this bright, pretty postman’s daughter from the Outer Hebrides would have landed the golden ticket?
Mary crossed aboard the SS Transylvania and arrived at Staten Island aged 18 in 1930 with $50 in her pocket. Her big sisters were already there and landed her a job in service, so the story goes, to the widow of Andrew Carnegie — which may have given her a taste for better things. In New York, she met Fred Trump, a real-estate developer — authoritarian, sharp-eyed, aggressively on the make — who was himself the son of a German immigrant. How did the Scots respond when the son of their local girl made good returned for a visit in 2018? With placards saying horrid things like ‘Orange is the new twat’. Rather sweetly, Trump appears so caught up in the poetry of his ancestry that he holds the UK dear regardless. If we do indeed get a good Anglo-American trade deal after Brexit, it’s Mary we should probably thank.
The Name of the Rose (BBC2, Fridays) is an utter stinker, badly let down by a workaday script and amateur-hour performances by a lacklustre cast headed by an uncharismatic John Turturro. Umberto Eco’s proto-Sherlock Holmes, 14th-century monk William of Baskerville (geddit?), ought to be a gift of a role (as indeed it was for the last person to play it on film, Sean Connery). But Turturro reads, rather than inhabits, his lines like a schoolboy actor grappling for the first time with Shakespearean verse.
I remember in the 1980s really enjoying reading Eco’s pseudo-intellectual ‘semiotic thriller’ about monastic skulduggery but this cheesy, clunky, oddly unatmospheric Euro adaptation makes me wonder whether it was codswallop all along. The bit, for example, where a young monk falls to his death from a high tower, and Baskerville quizzes the monk’s confessor about his ‘state of mind’ beforehand. To which surely the only possible answer in 1327 would be: ‘Give me another 600 years and I might understand what you mean by that.’
Dublin Murders (BBC1) is a much better bet, so long as you’re comfortable with labyrinthine-plotted crime thrillers about murdered children, laced with hints of incest, abuse and satanic ritual (which I’m not sure that I am totally; I think it’s mainly female audiences who dig this pervy, every-mother’s-worst-nightmare terrain). But I like the knowing, conspiratorial partnership between damaged-goods Garda detectives Cassie (Sarah Greene) and Rob (Killian Scott), their politically incorrect station boss, and the Celtic Tiger-era period setting.
What inspired me to watch it was a heartfelt reader comment that deserves wider circulation. They’d noticed that several viewers had been pleasantly surprised by the fact that for a BBC production, Dublin Murders seemed to betray a refreshing lack of diversity targets.
The reader goes on: ‘When I switch the TV on I have now come to expect a bizarre and fairy tale world where all the virtuous or powerful roles like those of prime minister or chief of police are played by non-traditional, native British people and all the low lifes and unimportant walk on parts by those who look and sound like me... The comments sections after Dublin Murders told me that I am not the only person to register this phenomenon. A very small tail is wagging a very big dog here and the dog is not, seemingly, happy.’
Just how unhappy I guess we’ll find out on the happy — if unlikely — day the BBC is privatised.